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Hockeyville game adds to rich history of Johnstown

by Kristen Nelson

Underneath a low ceiling from which hung a glitchy scoreboard were 4,001 blue seats that hockey fans from Johnstown, Pa., braved countless snowstorms to sit in since 1950.

The scene within Cambria County War Memorial should be familiar for many hockey fans. Most notably serving as the set in "Slap Shot," Johnstown was titled Kraft Hockeyville USA after promoting its extensive hockey history.

Nestled in an old steel mill town, the 65-year-old arena received $150,000 in renovations, including an updated scoreboard and the removal of a few seats to expand the team benches. It will also serve as the site for a preseason game between the Pittsburgh Penguins and the Tampa Bay Lightning on Tuesday (7 p.m. ET; NBCSN).

The iconic film among hockey enthusiasts was released in 1977, the same year the Johnstown Jets, the team that inspired the film, folded. Reviving hockey after the short stint of the Johnstown Blue Birds in 1941-42, the Jets had been the only team in town for 27 years.

Despite their absence, Johnstown expanded its love for hockey through film while watching Paul Newman and stringy-haired goons with taped spectacles defend the Charlestown Chiefs' name.

Steve Carlson, better known for his role as one of the Hanson Brothers of the same first name, says he was not surprised to see Johnstown win the Hockeyville title. Despite playing hockey professionally for 14 seasons, including one in the NHL with the Los Angeles Kings, and getting to call Gordie Howe and Wayne Gretzky teammates along the way, Carlson says Johnstown will always have a certain place in his heart.

Carlson, who played for the Jets for two seasons and occasionally returns in his famous costume, says the fans have been the heartbeat of hockey in Johnstown for decades.

"They needed something to cheer for there because the town is in a depression, all the companies are moving," Carlson said. "It's going to bring life to the town and I'm so happy for them. They worked hard to make this happen. It's great that they have something to cheer about."

But Carlson was a part of Johnstown hockey for more than just the Jets and acting as the self-inspired Steve Hanson.

After the Jets folded, the War Memorial was briefly home to two more minor-league teams, the Johnstown Wings and the Johnstown Red Wings, but each lasted for only a season and the arena was without an occupant from 1980-87.

In 1988, Carlson returned to the building in which he played and acted, this time to coach. After playing one season in the All-American Hockey League, the Johnstown Chiefs joined the newly formed ECHL, and Carlson was the first coach to take them on this next endeavor.

Proudly leading a team named as an homage to the film, Carlson coached four seasons and made Kelly Cup playoff runs in three of them, one of the Chiefs most successful stretches in franchise history.

Despite continuing the hard-fought hockey found in "Slap Shot" Carlson believes the game transitioned too quickly from being gritty and tough to more focused on skill. His pet peeve while coaching was seeing players skate with their heads down. Similar to "putting on the foil" in the film, Carlson was known as a feisty player who often dropped the gloves.

Much of the film was based off the type of style fans were used to seeing in Johnstown. The scene in which the Hanson Brothers climb into the stands to fight a fan who tossed a set of keys onto the ice was based off a real event in which Steve Carlson and his real brothers, Jeff and Jack, fought fans for throwing ice and the trio was arrested.

The Hanson Brothers were based off Steve, Jeff and Jack, but the latter was unable to partake in filming so Dave Hanson took his role. Steve, Jeff and Dave still reunite 20-30 times a year to perform across the country, donning their famous costumes. They even traveled to Germany on multiple occasions with co-star Yvon Barrette, who played the French-Canadian goaltender Denis Lemieux.

Although he's not a real hockey player, Barrette's character, who garnered laughs with his imperfect English, is not unlike Barrette himself.

"I find that my inspiration for Denis Lemieux was me. I used the movie as a new way of life," Barrette said with a laugh. "The character brings me so much happiness. I did it with all my heart and I love these people."

As the movie inches toward its 40th anniversary, it has had a timeless quality within the hockey world. However, former Chiefs forward Jody Shelley believes Johnstown has an even greater quality that's represented well in the movie: relatable, lunch-pail characters who work hard to appreciate the game.

Shelley, currently a color analyst for the Columbus Blue Jackets, valued his two seasons in Johnstown as a humbling stop in his career before moving on to the NHL for 12 years. He is one of more than 75 NHL players, past and present, to have called Johnstown home at some point in his career.

After being signed to a two-way contract with the Calgary Flames in 1998, Shelley was immediately sent to the Chiefs, a move he was not incredibly pleased with nor did he understand. Shelley didn't quite know what he was doing in this part of his professional path, but looking back it couldn't have been better for him.

"I'll see kids that haven't gone to the minors in different situations and I'll say, 'Maybe that guy should ride the bus in Johnstown.' You always hear it in life that the veteran or the older guy will say, 'Oh, you'll learn some day, you'll figure it out.' There's different ways to figure it out, and for me being in Johnstown teaches you to have an appreciation for every little thing that happens in the big time," Shelley said.

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